In 1969 I was an apprentice in the service department of a company sold and serviced typewriters and adding machines. I had an important job. I was the guy who dunked all the machines brought in for service and repair into the gunk tank. The tank was filled with solvent. The typewriters sat for a few hours to melt away the grime that mechanical devices seem to attract. Then, I donned a rubberized apron, safety goggles and gloves, hoisted the machines out of the tank and, wildly wielding a compressed air gun, blew the degreaser and gunk to hell and gone. All of this to clean up machines so the techs could see the innards well enough to work on them.
One Saturday just shy of noon (which was quitting time for Saturdays), a walk-in shows up with a Smith Corona Portable Electric typewriter—known, in the trade as a “Smith.” I think it was two-tone blue and white, locked into a carry case that featured a grey pebble-finish on the outside. Let’s call this person Mr. Grey Pebble. Let’s describe his demeanor as frantic.
As it turns out, Mr. Pebble’s Smith had developed a nasty habit of skipping characters. The faster you typed, the more characters it skipped. This little issue was beyond annoying. It was Titanic to Mr. Pebble because he had a church bulletin to finish and it was, as I said, Saturday.
The owner, and my boss, known as Mac, put down the newspaper and listened attentively, even politely to Mr. Pebble’s tale of woe. Hearing his problem, Mac swooped over and snatched the Smith away to the repair room. Mac set the machine down on a work table, turned on the goose neck lamp outfitted with a Soft White 150 Watt bulb, placed his glasses on his nose and began his inspection. After examining the machine, first by eyeball and next with a dentist mirror and flashlight, Mac uttered his magic phrase, “Ah! I see the problem. I can fix this right now.” Mr. Pebble visibly brightened, manifesting a sigh of relief since his salvation was nearly upon him.
Mac, reached for a small, long-shaft Philips-head screw driver. Next he adjusted his lamp, throwing 150 watts of light deeper into the machine. With a stoop and a squint, he located a screw head, and turning over his shoulder he said to me, “Plug this little beauty in, will you?” There was a quad receptacle box on the edge of his work bench, so I grabbed the plug, inserted it and the machine came life.
Mac tapped the space bar. The machine advanced three spaces. Mac turned the screw driver again and tapped the space bar. This time the Smith jumped only two spaces. With a smile, Mac turned the screw head once more, this time holding his pinky finger out to the side as if holding a Martini glass. The Smith Corona, for its part, advanced only one space.
Smiling to himself, Mac grabbed a sheet of paper from the box on his bench. He inserted it into the throat of the typewriter’s paper roller and rotated the paper knob with a showman-like snap of his fingers. The paper obediently came to a stop perfectly positioned. Mac sat down, adjusted his glasses and quickly and expertly typed “Mac says the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs!” No skips. It was perfect. Mr. Pebble was ecstatic.
As Mac returned the Smith it to its carry case, Mr. Pebble said, “How much to I owe you?” To which Mac replied, without a shred of hesitation, “That’ll be $25.”
Mr. Pebble’s face darkened. His breathing quickened. “That’s a lot of money for simply turning a screw,” he said.
Mac, pushed his glasses up, tilted his head back and looking down his nose at Mr. Pebble, replied, “Sir, you are not just paying me to turn a screw. You’re paying me for knowing which screw to turn.”
For my young self, this was an epiphany. The fact that it only takes a few minutes to turn the screw, has nothing to do with the value of knowing which screw to turn. Knowing what to do, and doing it quickly and accurately was valuable – not to mention saving the church the embarrassment of a no-show bulletin.
This year is our company’s 45th anniversary. Part of the reason we’ve grown and thrived for so long is that we have long recognized the value of what we know. We seek clients who value our knowledge and experience. Like Mac, our prices reflect the value of the work we perform. And, like Mack, we know our value lies in knowing which screw to turn.